Designing for Nontraditional College Students

According to a recent study conducted by RTI International, 74% of American undergraduate students are “nontraditional”. This is defined as:

Being over 24 years old
Having a GED
Having a child
Being a single parent
Waiting at least one year after high school to start college
Being a first-generation student (first in family to attend some form of college)

These nontraditional students are less likely to graduate, and if they do graduate, it rarely happens in 4 years. With the rising cost of post-secondary education, “nontraditional” students are carrying an ever-increasing financial burden. This burden is most significant for those individuals who do not graduate at all. In fact, those who do not finish their degree are three times as likely to default on their loans.

College, it seems, has been design for a “traditional” population that is now the minority of those actually attending these schools.

Over the next 8 weeks, I will be conducting research to better understand the experience of nontraditional students attending colleges and universities so that I can ultimately design products and systems that will support these students in their journey to graduate in four years.

The University of Texas is currently working  to support these students, and is in the process of developing a new learning model based in competency-based education.  It’s believed that this will work better for those students who are limited on time. To encourage these students to continue and complete their courses, I’ve been tasked with developing a set of viable concepts for visualizing a student’s progress through UT’s new education app.  Through both primary and secondary research, my hope is to take this assignment a bit further, and first validate that this app will solve the main challenges that “nontraditional” students are facing. I’ll use this research to define the problem space, generate insights, and ultimately design for improving the experience and graduation rate of “nontraditional” students.

Ethical Decision Making

“Everybody has a plan until they punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson

This is a quote I think about often. I think it’s really important to have a plan, and I also think that plan is most likely going to fail.

In our conversations around ethics and building an ethical framework, this Mike Tyson quote has been echoing in the back of my mind. Particularly because his answer is in response to a question he received about his upcoming fight with Evander Holyfield–an opponent he ended up loosing his heavy weight title to.

I’ve been thinking about my framework really in the context of working for a company after my time at AC4D. It’s in three parts. First, how can I set myself up for a job, career, or situation where the decisions being made are starting from solid ethical ground.  After a lot of introspection around the companies I’ve worked with or consulted for, I’ve summarized that first step like this:

Ethical Framework 2

When a company has a clear mission (both internally and externally), when they are building products that actually align with that mission, and when the financial incentives are aligned for the customer and the company, I’ve seen that there is a much more stable scenario for ethical decision making.

That’s my plan, knowing that even if I follow that exactly, I’ll be punched in the mouth. So, the second layer of my ethical framework involves weight absolutes on a scale. For example, “this is only harming people-this is only helping people” or “I am designing for one-I am designing for all”.

At the bottom of my framework, and something powering the entire thing is my brain. To make the best decisions, and decisions I personally believe to be ethical, I think a grounding reality is that my brain needs to be operating at its highest possible level. Mental health, physical health, and a commitment to constantly learning feed my brain at its best.

An abstraction of my framework as it currently stands:

framework 5


Myanmar, Facebook, and Regulation

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar for a few days while traveling in Southeast Asia. It was the beginning of 2016, and Myanmar had only been open to the outside world for 3-4 years at that point. For me, it was amazing to see a country so untouched by western influence–there wasn’t a Starbucks or McDonalds in sight, though there was one KFC at the airport.

Of anywhere I’ve traveled, the Burmese people were by far the most warm and friendly. I happened to be there on a national holiday, and this street had been closed off by the people that lived nearby and both kids and adults were enjoying participating in various relay races.


When my husband, sister, and I stopped to watch the fun, a few teenagers immediately came over to us to offer us a balloon and to invite us to join in on the fun.

The country has gone through massive changes since it opened to outside investment. When the telecom market was initially deregulated in 2012, less than 1% of Burmese people had access to the internet. By the time I visited just a few years later, over half of the country had a cell phone and was accessing the internet regularly. Facebook served as the main app for these new mobile adopters, and for many, news and Facebook were one and the same.

It wasn’t long before fake news started to spread, and fear began to build about potential future violence from the minority group of the Rohingya. This lead to extremist attacks against the Rohingya and eventual genocide against this minority group taken out by the Burmese government.

There’s been and is still a huge amount of conversation around Facebook’s unwillingness to quickly respond and regulate the inciting comments that built online against this population. Many are even going so far as to blame Facebook for the genocide. But the situation got even more complicated whenever studies started to uncover that it very well may have been an organized campaign against the Rohingya, planned by the Burmese government that eventually carried out this violence. This is the same government that seemed to have so radically shifted to an open and democratic system just a few years before.

Using this example as a way of fleshing out my personal ethical framework, I’ve found myself asking two questions that seem at odds with each other. First, should tools like Facebook be a platform or a publisher? And second, and maybe more importantly, you may trust the regulator now, but what if the regulator changes?

Capture 2

What I’m most struck by, is that this isn’t the first time the Burmese government has persecuted this population. Thanks to Facebook, however, it might be the first time the people of Myanmar have had an opportunity to hear and read outside voices on what has really happened in their country.


Is your desire for privacy actually hurting others?

It’s arguably harder than ever to keep information private in this modern age. Photos are taken digitally, shared, and then impossible to recover. Search history is gathered, triangulated, and then used by major businesses to predict and influence future behavior–often without any expressed consent.

Recently, Google’s Project Nightingale has come to the forefront of the conversation around healthcare data and privacy because one of the most powerful companies in the world has gained access to one of the largest known data sets of personal health information through a partnership with America’s second largest healthcare provider.

Google says its mission as a company is “to organize the world’s information”, and by gaining access to this health data they are going to be able to do a lot of good in the world. But many are very skeptical about. Shockingly, it was never communicated to the patients or their doctors that this data had been shared. But perhaps even more shocking is the fact that this data (on over 50 million Americans) is non-anonymized.

Google already knows quite a bit about the individuals that use their search engines and other tools. The risks of them having this much additional non-anonymized data seems extremely risky. What if they take this data and use it to discriminate against people for things like medical coverage or life insurance? What if an employer could pay Google a fee to see all of one’s health information as a way of augmenting a future employee’s standard background check? There are seemingly countless examples of why this work might be risky for individuals.

But, I also want to explore what the positive side of this work might be. Let’s walk through a typical person’s medical journey when they receive a diagnosis. Often, someone shows symptoms. They go to a doctor to explain these symptoms and if they are lucky that first doctor has an idea of what is going on and gives them a diagnosis.  The doctor may listen to the patient talk about their symptoms, take a look at a few things on their physical body, take the patient;s temperature, run a test or two and then give a diagnosis. Maybe this patient has the flu. That seems pretty straight forward.

But what about when it’s more complicated than that. What if this doctor considers all of the patients symptoms and test results and recommends that the patient go see a specialist.

Often, going to a specialist requires the patient to get a copy of their medical records from the current doctor (maybe from just this appointment but quite possibly from all historical appointments), which includes copies of test results that could digital or hard copy, copies of appointment summaries that could be digital or hard copy, and then bring those records to the new doctor often BEFORE the appointment so that the specialist has time to review those documents. These documents are often sent by snail mail, by fax, by email, by online portal, or sometime, and in my personal experience, have to be hand delivered from one doctors office to another because their digital systems don’t work, the fax machines aren’t working that day (do fax machines ever actually work?), and snail mail will be too slow.

Now think about that being further exacerbated by someone who receives a critical diagnosis. Maybe they have cancer, or a need for surgery. That’s often a team of doctors that need the patient’s medical history. Imagine deciding you want a second opinion. It can become completely overwhelming for even the most organized patient, and often information gets lost in all of these transactions. Tests are retaken over and over again, and the patterns that could have been noticed over time are not noticed because the files often end up as a stack of large papers.

To further illustrate how complicated this process can be, I sketched out a scenario that I personally experienced a few years ago-from initial doctor visit about symptoms to the eventual need  for surgery. There was an enormous amount of paper work that needed to be moved but also an unbelievable amount of time I had to spend just shuffling physical or digital papers from one place to another.

slice v2

For an individual that doesn’t have the capacity to go through all of this effort (many of these scenarios are kicked off due to an illness of some kind, after all), they are stuck not receiving the care they need, or receiving it on a MUCH slower timeline than they need it. What about people who work hourly jobs, and don’t have the luxury of taking a 2 hour lunch to run some of these documents from place to place?

When I think back to all of the time I spent shuffling information around and calling doctors and logging into new portals and then pause to consider that one day there might be an option for those doctors to simply log into a system that looks like a google search engine, type in my name, and then immediately have access to every test result or doctor visit I’ve ever had, I have to admit it reframes the obvious risks.

Beyond the risks of this data being used to exploit, I think it’s also important to ask the question – Is it unethical to NOT engage in large scale data collaborations like Project Nightingale if these project have the very real ability to significantly improve health and even save lives at an unprecedented scale and speed? I wonder how many people right now are sick and will continue to be only because all of their health history is scattered among multiple doctors and cities and systems. If that person could be cured by simply pulling all of that health history into the same place for one doctor (or machine) to process, then how do we weigh the risk?

Facilitating Inclusive Design

Last week I facilitated a 30 minute conversation around inclusive and exclusive design. A group conversation surrounding readings we completed before class is always helpful in processing new information, but I also wanted to use this as an opportunity to prompt ideas for each of our personal design frameworks.

My hope was that everyone walked away from our conversation with an open mind to what in an inclusive design might mean.

To begin our group discussion, I introduced two key definitions from Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Tool Kit.

“Inclusive Design: A design methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity.”

“Accessibility: 1. The qualities that make n experience open to all. 2. A professional discipline aimed at achieving No. 1”

A more succinct way a fellow student suggested for thinking about these concepts is that inclusivity gets you a seat at the table, accessibility is if you can participate in the activity once you are there.

After a brief discussion of these terms, we walked through some basic consideration to be made whenever engaging in inclusive design. I would consider this the weaker part of my group facilitation, and if I were to engage in the exercise again I would move this to the end of the session. I was hoping to start a list of considerations that we would then build on, but it turned out that the next bit of conversation I had planned was much more effective at soliciting group participation.

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The most successful part of this facilitated discussion began when I introduced a scenario: A venture capitalist has come to our design group with a directive to use our “design skills” to develop a new body soap product. This investor will let us take it from there, so it’s up to us to create a soap that we personally believe is ethical and inclusive.

To prompt discussion and thinking, I asked the group to first consider how they might make the most exclusive soap possible. By using a more simple product like soap (as opposed to a complex system or interaction) we were able to quickly think of ways to make it exclusive, such as: 

  • Expensive
  • Bacon fat included
  • Skin color altering
  • Requiring complex technology
  • Time intensive to use
  • Short lasting results
  • Something that must be assembled each time
  • Only a set number created

While some silly ideas emerged, it helped us think in larger buckets of who might be excluded by design decisions. Beyond just age, or race, or income, it’s possible to be exclusive on the basis of time constraints, access to technology, or dietary choices.

From there we flipped the conversation and used the traits we listed to understand how to better design an inclusive soap.

Overall, the exercise was a bit silly, and intentionally so. I was hoping to solicit conversation or bring up ideas that we hadn’t had before. 

In the end, maybe the most interesting piece of the conversation was around feasibility of inclusive design. Since the exercise required a focus on extremes, it brought about the conversation of what to do when a design elements are in direct opposition to each other. 

This lead to a conversation about “growing the pie”, and figuring out how to serve a new population, while not forgetting the original.

The resulting element I personally chose to add to my framework as a result of this facilitated session was a test I could ask myself around the design of any system, interaction, or product in the future. Can I add any other population or user need to this design without completely cutting out another population? i.e. Can I grow this pie without detracting from it at the same time?

Makers and their Money

Continuing with our work from last weekKyle, Sean, and I have continued to speak with makers in the Austin area who rely on contract-based employment. We’ve had the opportunity to learn from artists, craft workers, and construction workers about their attitudes toward money, and about how they make ends meet whenever they are completely reliant on variable income


Below, are a few stories of the people we have spoken with and what we’ve learned from them.

Jordan is a construction worker. He moved to Austin from Michoacán, Mexico in 1998. He came to work, but went to high school first, in Del Valle, just south of Austin. He enjoyed high school, playing soccer and running cross country, and he learned to speak English. When he graduated, his first job was laying carpet and flooring. Since then, his jobs have shifted: he performed stone work for a while, and now does carpentry. He lives with his wife and four children in a home in south Austin, a home that he lost during the Great Recession but was able to buy back later, at lower cost, in a fortuitous turn of events. He’s since paid off his house, but he’s now paying back loans on a new car and truck. He’s hoping he might be able to save for his daughter to go to college, but so far, it has been difficult. “I guess we’re never happy because we pay [our bills] and then we decide to go and get into debt again,” he laments. Although he’d like to have a “normal job…be an employee and just kind of take it easy,” he says, he likes the variety of his work and the fact that he always gets to learn new skills. He’s proud of his abilities and invests in his tools regularly, so that he can always find work. As he says, even when the contracts slow down, “you got bills to pay, and they don’t wait.”

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Becca and Carrie run a creative studio specializing in signage, wayfinding, and art. They met in Nashville in 2012, but moved to Portland a year later so Carrie could study acupuncture. Disillusioned, she dropped out two years later, and the two moved to Austin. Becca is an artist who dropped out of her program during the Great Recession. Upon moving to Austin, she began working as an artist’s assistant, but she hated it. After getting paid $800 for a sign-painting gig, she decided to start her own business. Carrie now works alongside her, handling much of their administrative and financial management. The two have found success, mainly in the restaurant industry; every time they go out to eat, it seems, they find a new client. Like many contract workers, they find work through networking and word of mouth. After a tumultuous year of success and disappointment, including canceled corporate gigs and unplanned tax expenses, the two are working to build their way out of credit card debt. “We have insane credit cards, not like normal people credit cards,” Becca says. But it’s worth it to finally live out her dream. As she tells us, “If you don’t build your own dreams, someone else will hire you to build theirs for them.”


Pete is an artist who “escaped Oklahoma in 2008” and moved to Austin in the middle of the recession. He graduated from college with degrees in graphic design, illustration, and studio art. After graduation he applied to over 3,000 jobs (he counted) and didn’t get one. He was struggling to make ends meet and remembers at one point being close to “literally starving to death.” He’s been working in the area long enough that he’s built a great reputation for himself and people call him when they need him. He said he likes it that way. People call him when they need him and he can say yes or no. He’s a jack of all trades, and works in audio, lighting, design, and recently has been getting into the photography business. When we asked him about his month to month income he said it was hard to separate his income from the way he thinks about his budget at all. “Basically, the way I think about it is that I have an overhead, and then I think about how much I need to work to cover that.” During his time in Austin, he’s been a frequent victim of gentrification–one year getting gentrified 5 times and in one of those moves was given just 15 days to move out and find a new place. This is particularly challenging for him as he has equipment that he must store at his home and then move from place to place.

Emerging Themes

We have several people left to speak with, but already some themes are emerging from this research.


Rely on their networks and relationships for work, and for increased stability over time.

Have to be in control to allow for a free flow of creativity

Are their own safety net. Confidence is a huge factor in success

Don’t compromise on their dreams and they don’t want to use their skills to build someone else’s dreams

Are system outlaws




How to Be an Ethical Designer – In Practice

When talking about design, and the techniques that designers use, it’s almost impossible to leave the topic of ethics out of the conversation. Designers are able to create useful products, systems, and interactions by intimately understanding the way humans operate. Good designers go beyond understanding what a person does, and they understand why that person does what they do, how they feel when they do it and even why they feel that way. That understanding can lead to some really great solutions to big problems. But, it can also lead to opportunities for manipulation of the user.

In our Design Ethics class, we have been exploring what it means to create ethical design. There really isn’t any universal right or wrong in ethics, and design doesn’t have a formal code of ethics, so it is up to each designer to make these ethical decisions on their own.

This class is giving us an opportunity to explore ethical questions, and to build an ethical framework for ourselves of what we personally believe to be ethical. I’m still processing a lot of what I’ve learned over the last couple of weeks, but something that keeps coming to mind for me is the connection between building a framework and then implementing that framework.

At AC4D, we are studying this information in great detail, so the conversations we are all having about ethical design are with others who are educated on and interested in the topic. And that’s certainly valuable. But in May, that’s over. I hope to have a job lined up by then, and most likely I’ll be walking into a business environment where few, if any, of my colleagues are educated in or even aware of the ethical impact design can have. I’ll be armed with my personal framework by then, but I think the hardest part is going to be communicating the value of those ethical decisions in a way that someone else will understand or even care.

This is further compounded by the fact that many dark patterns in design actually do benefit the business, at least in the short term. They trick people into spending more time on a website or buying more product. I wanted to explore how I might be able to communicate my own ethical boundaries when faced with an environment where I’m the only one thinking about these choices through an ethical lens.

To do so, I’ve called on my previous profession as a nonprofit fundraiser. In fundraising, your end goal is to raise money for an organization. At my last organization, our mission was to place post-9/11 military veterans into industry careers. All of the money that is raised goes directly toward that mission, but people give for lots of different reasons. Some people give because they had directly benefitted from our program, while others gave because they knew they wanted to give back to their local community, and we were able to provide them with solid stats on our success rate to convince them that we were a good investment.

These different temperaments are usually referred to as the  “7 Faces of Philanthropy”.

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This framework really helped me in fundraising because I had my own reasons for caring about our mission to help military veterans, but communicating why I cared wasn’t always going to resonate with people. I would have to meet them where they were most interest and communicate with them that way.

I’ve incorporated this way of thinking into the ethical framework I’m building, and have started to think about how I will communicate my personal ethics in a way that makes sense and matters to future colleagues. Understanding those colleagues and their motivations will allow me to speak with them about these ethical topics but in a language that makes sense to them.

This is a potential group of colleagues, and an attempt at understanding what they might care about most:

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Using this as a tool, I can come up with scenarios with ethical implications and see how to best communicate my concerns with this wide variety of colleagues. For example, let’s say I work for a company that is sending a massive amount of emails and not giving a clear way for users to unsubscribe from those emails. To simply say “I don’t think this is ethical because we aren’t giving our users any agency to make decisions about whether or not they want to receive these emails” I think a better approach would be to meet my colleagues where they are. For the lawyer who is constantly evaluating risk for the company, it might be updating him on the recent LinkedIn case, and letting him know that this type of behavior is starting to create some real legal issues for companies. For the founder of this company, it might be the money he stands to loose by a drop off in frustrated customers. I could encourage him to give his customers more agency with the emails and take a more long term approach. The better his customer retention is the more money he can make in the long run.

Over the rest of the quarter, I’ll be continuing to build my own ethical framework, while at the same time thinking about how to best communicate these topics with a future colleague who has no background in this way of thinking.

So…what exactly is going on here…?

Part of our experience as design students has been figuring out how in the world to even explain what it is that we are going to school for.  “I’m going back to school to study design!” we’ve all said to a friend or family member. “Oh, how cool…like interior, or fashion design”? For a while, I personally tried responses like “No, more like design strategy”, or “No, I’ll be learning to use design to solve problems”. But, those responses typically fell flat. You, too, may also be pretty confused by reading that.

To be honest, after many failed attempts at explaining what I would be doing, I just started to quietly glance down at my generic amazon jeans and worn-in tennis shoes. I would look around my apartment filled with mismatched Ikea and West Elm furniture, and would sigh a bit while responding “Yup. Exactly. Fashion design.”

It’s becoming clear that this isn’t just a problem we face as students, but a challenge we are going to face repeatedly as professional designers as well. We will need to be able to describe what we are working on but also how we are approaching that work and why we are approaching it in that way.

Since the middle of August we have been learning standard design research methodology, and then putting into practice with a client in the Austin community. We’ve also been learning how to communicate our work and its value. Explaining that methodology and its value has been a challenge for us as a team, and it’s something Dan, Leah, and I are focusing on as we move forward in this program.


The standard methodology is usually explained like this:

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You conduct research, and then you make sense of the research. In this part of the research phase, you first make a plan for how to do the research, and then report back some stories to your client about the people you have spoken to.

In the second phase, you make sense of the data, of the people you have spoken with. This includes printing out every single word that was uttered in a conversation, and then pinning them on the walls in your work space. Looking at all of those conversations together helps you find patterns, or themes. After some themes emerge, you would jump into service slices. A service slice is a way of intensely dissecting a conversation to understand more about what is being communicated. Then, and only then, can you move ahead into the process to the elusive, but ever valuable insights. An insight is an instinct about why you think those themes are emerging.

In practice, of course, some of this work may not be so linear and former steps aren’t left behind when advancing to the next. Stories from the field, for example, will be woven in with most of the work, even as one moves ahead to themes or insights. This is because service design, at it’s core, is about people. It’s about telling their unique stories. It’s not an archetype of the general  public it’s about the uniqueness of each individual. To build a case and make a convincing argument for a design idea, designers have to share the stories of the people they interviewed, and take others along the ride with them so that the eventual solutions make sense. We aren’t building graphs built on numbers to explain what’s happening in the world – we are deeply exploring and trying to understand just a few people and use their unique experiences, behaviors, and emotions to spark ideas for new things that don’t yet exist.

Applying this knowledge.

For our project with HOPE Farmers Market, and for our 4th assignment we have focused on service slices. At first, a service slice really only makes sense to the person doing the work. Here’s an example:

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While it is certainly complex in this initial format, creating services slices really proved to be a revealing process. That diagram was created from just a 30 minute conversation. Once you dive into these service slices, you begin to realize just how much is happening during a conversation.

This jumbled mess can’t really be presented to a client, or anyone outside the project team, but sometimes a distilled version of what you’ve captured can aid in storytelling or in conveying a concept.

For the Farmers Market, we mapped several of our conversations with vendors, and what stood out to us is that nearly every single vendor we spoke with was on a similar journey. They were all creating a product for the first time, learning to sell it for the first time, figuring out licensing for the first time, engaging in marketing for the first time, and the farmers market was present at nearly the exact same spot in their journey.

Take for instance Janet. Janet makes juice, and before selling her juice at the farmers market she was simply making it for friends at a potluck. Her friends encouraged her to start selling it because it was so good, but she “Wasn’t so sure about all of that.” Janet had never started a business or sold a product, and she was going to have to learn all of those skills for the first time. She eventually did decide to join a monthly pop-up market, and quickly applied to the farmers market to start selling weekly. She says she chose HOPE Farmers Market because she knew it was an easier market to get into than others, and it was cheaper as well.  Over the last few years, HOPE has allowed her to come a long way. It’s provided her with an infrastructure, a steady side-income, a place to interact with customers and solicit their feedback, and it has also allowed her to learn from her fellow vendors. Today, she is in conversation with brick-and-mortar grocery stores and is excited about the potential of growing her business even more. 

Here is how we mapped out her journey with her product and her business:

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We went through the same process for another vendor, Jessie, who had a surprisingly similar story.

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Lastly, we spoke with someone named Walter who had been at HOPE for nearly 8 years. He’s built his Kombucha business and he’s grown well beyond the market into restaurants and stores. But, when we drew out his business growth based on the conversations we had with him, what we found is that he, too, came to HOPE Farmers Market around the same time in his business journey. Walter has been at it longer, and has demonstrated what is possible for a vendor after participating at HOPE.

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We approached this “Service Slice” assignment as an academic exercise, with no end goals of what to get out of it. What we found, was that mapping out the conversations, particularly with the vendors we spoke to, pulled out more patterns than we had recognized by just reading or listening to the conversations.

Our next step will be to take everything we’ve learned thus far, and move to the next step of the process–insights. We’ll arrive there by thinking about the patterns that have emerged in our research, and using our intuition to to assert why that might be happening.

If we are being honest with you though, we might have started to move just a bit ahead. Our intuition is kicking in whether we like it or not. HOPE Farmers Market seems to fall at the same place along each of these business owners’ journeys. It creates a framework for them. It creates collaboration through unintentional collision. Could it be? Might it be? Is HOPE an informal incubator space without even knowing it?



What’s Missing From Your Design Toolkit?

For the last few weeks, my classmates and I have been reading and discussing a set of readings focused on Design Thinking. This has run in parallel with the work in our research class, where we are actively applying the design thinking methodology. In this post I’ll be processing my thoughts on design thinking methodology, where I think it works best, and where I think it might be lacking.

First, some of the main authors and their ideas:

Edward de Bono – Discusses the importance of creativity and gives us a variety of tools to aid in the process of withholding judgement and allowing our brains to go to weird, new places. He argues that “the normal behavior of the brain in perception is to set up routine patterns and to follow these. In order to cut across patterns, we can use deliberate techniques.”

Nigel Cross, Discovering Design Ability – Explores what design is capable of and seeks to establish design as a “discipline in its own right. He also makes the case that design can be taught.

Horst Rittel & Melvin Webber – Asserts that design is meant for big, messy, wicked problems. And, in fact, the formulation of the wicked problem is, itself, the problem.

Tim Brown & Jocelyn Wyatt – Posits that design thinking and design need to be separate words, as they mean different things. They argue that design speaks specifically to the product, whereas design thinking speaks to the system, or the context in which that product will be operating.

Richard Buchanan- Build the idea that design is layered, and operates in the world across four main areas: symbolic and visual communication, material objects, activities and organized services, and then finally complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning.

Herbert A. Simon- Believes that a well defined problem isn’t a real thing. If you think you’ve distilled a discrete problem, then you are missing the context. In the world, there is going to be far too much to measure.

Chris Pacione – Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy – Suggests that design is the new math. Essentially, math was once a skill only mathematicians used. But now, it’s integral to our society and to nearly all professions. Design could and should be the next math.

Now, my take on design thinking.

I’m a believer in its power. I am drawn in particular to Pacione’s take on the value of design across a broad array of professions and work types. Design thinking allows us to open up our minds, to see things that no one has seen.  Latent problems exist all around us and we have to be actively engaged in uncovering them in order to do so. The methodology of design thinking helps us do just that.

However, all of the tools we’ve been learning and applying in our design research course only give us a way to gather and make sense of qualitative, biased information. We meet people and we ask them questions and we learn how they operate, what motivates them. Essentially, we are learning their perceptions of reality. From there, patterns emerge from what we have learned.

From this point, there is a HUGE jump toward insights. We gather no new data, but somehow designers are able to jump from identifying a pattern to knowing why it’s interesting and matters in the context of the larger story. That’s a huge leap. And the only way a designer gets there is by using his/her intuition. Intuition, by definition, is instinctual. It’s a gut feeling about something. But that intuition comes from somewhere. It’s made up of all of our life experiences, our knowledge base, and what we know to be true about the world. We use our own lens to evaluate patterns in others perceptions and then we arrive at an entirely new ideas.

But what about times when a designer doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about a space? I’d argue this is where quantitative data could come in. We are out in the field learning as much as we can from people, why not integrate quantitative data to paint a more robust picture?

My classmate, Michelle, crystallizes this idea in her recent post by saying “people may believe quantitative data is reductive, dry, lacks personality or nuance. But when I hear those critiques, I think, ‘You’re just looking at the wrong data!’ The right quantitative data for your problem will spark curiosity, will express nuance, will prompt expansive thinking. With practice interpreting or visualizing data, quantitative data can tell a lively and highly specific story, or at least point you in the direction of one.”

I’d ask designers not to shy away from quantitative data, but to lean into it. Use it as another tool. Quantitative research methods might have flaws, but you can learn some things from it that you can’t learn from 15 interviews. Integrating it into the design thinking methodology would make for a more rigorous process and help drive toward much more significant insights.

Saving the World

A lot of people want to save the world– especially those of us who have grown up without want and in a safe and loving environment. So many of us want to help, but what we’ve been learning and discussing in our Theory class through the last set of readings is that helping is complex. Any action one takes, or change one makes in the attempt to better the life of another, is going to have implications. There are always possibilities for unintended consequences.

There is also nuance. What works for one community might not work for another. Or, maybe it will work for a while, but the solution isn’t long-lasting.

When reviewing the work of seven authors, I’ve done my best to formulate and then figure out how to articulate my own thoughts on helping those in poverty. The authors we have discussed believe:

C.K. Prahlad: While the poor across the globe do not have much money, there are a lot of them. By creating a product they will need or want and selling to them at scale, there can be a mutually beneficial situation. The poor have more than they did before and the seller can build their own wealth.

Dean Spears: Econometric analysis has found that decision fatigue really is a thing–and for the poor, it’s further compounded. With less money at their disposal, every purchasing decision a person experiencing poverty has to make, the more stress and fatigue they experience. This means they are more likely to loose discipline to make good decisions faster than someone without the same financial burdon.

Roger Martin: Defining what “Social Entrepreneurship” means is important as the term gains traction. a Social entrepreneur is someone who builds a business that solves a market problem and sustains itself with earned revnue, but at the same time is making a positive impact on society.

Muhammad Yunus: Yunus pioneered the practice of “micro loans. He found that in very poor countries, people were unable to receive loans from a regular bank as they had no collateral to offer. He found, however, that by loaning small amounts of money to people and instilling a sense of responsibility in the entire broader community, 97% of the loans would be paid back.

Emily Pilloton: Proximity is key. One cannot know what is needed for a population without first becoming one with the population. Pilloton believes one must live the experience before they can improve it.

Victor Margolin: Big, messy, wicked problems are not always solvable. One solution may lead to other new and unexpected problems. It’s important to define what the problem is, and the dimension of the problem. This will inform the dimension of the needed solution.

Michael Hobbes: Solutions to big social problems don’t often scale. Every community is different and every problem is nuanced.

My personal opinion is explained through the story below.


This is me.


I’ve got a big heart but I’m pretty low key. I work a 9-5 job, and on the weekends I like to hang out with friends and mostly keep to myself.

I have a Friday night ritual of stopping by the gas station, buying one Lotto ticket, and then watching the local news until the numbers are announced and then heading to bed.

One night, I’m dosing of as I hear 5-3-5-6-1-1-2. Wait, WHAT!? I can’t believe it. Those are my numbers. those are all my numbers!! I feel like I’m on cloud 9.


I start to think about all of my options. I could buy a yaht, or a mansion, or go clubbing in Ibiza, but what I really want to do is use my money to help others who are less fortunate.Presentation1

I look for nonprofits to donate to, and choose several with missions that resonate with me. I feel good giving the money away, and even better thinking about the lives I’ve impacted. After several months I follow up with the nonprofit and ask how the community is doing where I made my gift. I’m so saddened to learn that the nonprofit has stopped serving the area! They said the area wasn’t improving, and rather than keep trying to make an impact, they wanted to cut their losses and find another area that might be easier to help.

I can’t believe it.


I wanted to help people. and my money has done nothing.

This time I decide to take matters into my own hands. I wonder if maybe those in poverty just don’t have the tools they need. Maybe they need a plan to follow to make improvements in their community. Bono has been getting a lot of press lately for bringing PlayPumps to African villages. Water is clean and much easier to access, and kids get to play on the PlayPump, and their energy produces the water. How cool is that?  If Bono is in I’m in.


But then, after a couple of years, I stop getting update letters. Once again I stop hearing from the organization so I check in. It turns out that while this worked for a little while, it wasn’t a sustainable solution. The PlayPumps have been abandoned and the community is arguably worse off than before the PlayPump was installed! I just can’t believe it.

My last attempt is a rather new idea, and I think it will help empower the people receiving the money as opposed to dictate how the money should be used. I begin to make micro-loans. One in particular I make to Tom. He makes hats and he needs a sewing machine to be able to make more of them.Presentation3

My investment goes ok, but the next year when I return Tom has only been able to make a few more hats that he did the previous year. He said he’s selling more but he doesn’t want to make so many that he can’t sell them.

To be honest, I’m happy Tom is happy, but once again I’m so disappointing.  I wanted to make a big impact. I wanted to give my money away and have it improve the quality of life for someone else. Presentation4

I give up, go shopping, finally take that trip to Ibiza, and live a mostly unfulfilled life.

What I didn’t realize, was that Tom’s life DID change… slowly.



Slowly, over time, Tom was able to build his business, and eventually leave that legacy to his daughter. The change didn’t happen quickly. But over time, situations changed, the world became more global, Toms town grew, and my investment in Tom had set him up for slow growth and future success. Tom saw some of the gains, but his child saw even more. I wanted to make a big impact and change the world, but I wanted immediate gratification form that change, and that was pretty selfish. Change take time.